Apple, Google, and others to Notify Users of Secret Data Demand

by Istvan Fekete on May 2, 2014

Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google have decided to end the practice of quietly complying with investigators’ demands for email records and other online data. The companies believe that users have the right to know in advance when their information is targeted for government seizure, reports the Washington Post.

The aforementioned companies are in the process of updating their policies to expand routine notifications to users about government data seizures, unless such notification specifically prohibited by a judge or other legal authority. Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google are following a similar move made by Yahoo July.

This industry stand offers the opportunity to the tens of thousands of American users whose Internet data gets swept into criminal investigations to defend their online privacy in court. On the other hand, prosecutors warn that by doing so, tech companies undermine cases by giving criminals time to destroy vital evidence before it can be gathered.

“It serves to chill the unbridled, cost-free collection of data,” said Albert Gidari Jr., a partner at Perkins Coie who represents several technology companies. “And I think that’s a good thing.”

The Justice Department disagrees, saying in a statement that new industry policies threaten investigations and put potential crime victims in greater peril.

“These risks of endangering life, risking destruction of evidence, or allowing suspects to flee or intimidate witnesses are not merely hypothetical, but unfortunately routine,” department spokesman Peter Carr said, citing a case in which early disclosure put at risk a cooperative witness in a case. He declined to offer details because the case was under seal.

The changing policies, however, do not affect data requests approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which are automatically kept secret by law, or by national security letters, which are administrative subpoenas issued by the FBI in the course of national security investigations.

While the government traditionally notified people directly affected by searches and seizures when they were being investigated (though not immediately, of course), this wasn’t done when conducting surveillance in the digital world: cellular carriers don’t disclose to their customers when investigators collect their data.

Earlier this week we reported that Canada’s interim Privacy Commissioner, Chantal Bernier, had revealed that government agencies demand customer data from telecom companies 1.2 million times per year. And let’s mention that a big chunk of those requests are honored without the need for a warrant.

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Written by: Istvan Fekete. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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